Why I became a cancer advocate

I have the best job in all of healthcare.

As vice president of oncology services at Health Quest, I come to work every day to help fight cancer.

Cancer has no boundaries. Today, World Cancer Day, and every day, I vow to advocate for patients and families who are affected by this horrible disease.

In my wildest dreams, I never expected my work to become as deeply personal as it became nearly three years ago. My daughter's husband was undergoing treatment for what was thought to be a persistent sinus infection. My worst enemy — the enemy I have dedicated my life to fighting —knocked on my family's door. It was cancer.

Our family was luckier than many who go through the cancer journey. We had access to care and insurance to cover it, and my son-in-law received supportive care that greatly improved his quality of life. In the end, cancer took his life — leaving my daughter a widow at age 29.

People cope with grief in many different ways. I grieve by doubling down on my efforts to educate patients, staff, lawmakers and anyone else who will listen to me. I have vowed to keep using my voice and my actions to help move us to a world that is free from the pain and suffering of cancer.

This is how I got to where I am today:

I graduated from nursing school at age 21 and began my career in the critical care and emergency departments. It was very exciting and for many years I thought it was my true calling. I enjoyed the critical thinking and loved learning new things and putting my knowledge to good use in a fast-paced environment.

As life progressed and I started a family, I began to see nursing in a different light and wanted to work in an area that was more focused on prevention of disease. I went into oncology nursing and began my specialization in breast oncology. I loved working in a busy breast center, where I helped eliminate barriers to timely screening, treatment and supportive care for my patients.

I also began volunteering for the American Cancer Society and found myself teaching patients, nurses and families about prevention, screening and many other support services available to those with a cancer diagnosis.

Later, I went to work for a healthcare advocacy organization and had the opportunity of a lifetime managing a demonstration project that was committed to developing a breast services model that rested on four structural components: increased access to healthcare, decreased barriers to healthcare, enhanced quality of care and improved quality of life for breast cancer patients. This was where I learned about how everyday people like me could use their voices to help influence lawmakers, administrators and educators about improving cancer care.

As an advanced practice nurse, I've always felt compelled to use my knowledge and to advocate for patients and their families.  When I began my specialization in oncology, I quickly learned that if I was to truly impact the lives of my patients, I needed to get involved in influencing decisions that really had the potential to decrease the number of people suffering and dying from cancer. It's a myth that most decisions about healthcare are made in your doctor's office — many of the most important decisions about cancer are made by your state legislature, in Congress and in the White House. That is precisely why I decided to volunteer with The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (CAN), the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society.

I'd been an American Cancer Society volunteer for years and loved it, but this was right up my alley. I would speak for those who could not speak for themselves. I would do this as a professional nurse, one who had experienced cancer care firsthand through the lens of the countless patients I'd cared for over the years. Now, more than 10 years later, I've been speaking to legislators about real patients — my patients — who were burdened by insurance caps, high deductibles and pre-existing conditions. I've advocated for more cancer research funding, laws that protect our clean indoor air and concerns about palliative care and quality of life.

I arrived at Vassar Brothers Medical Center exactly 15 years ago. I was hired as the first service line administrator for oncology services and I've loved every day of it. We've developed into a mature, destination program that balances the art and science of cancer care. I've helped build a team of professionals who live by the very basic principle of treating patients and their loved ones as partners in their own healthcare.

Every day is a new day in oncology: new treatments, new technologies and new prevention methods abound. But, at the end of the day, it's all about providing excellent patient care. I am what they call a "serial rounder" — I spend time each day walking through our facilities talking to patients and their families, staff and physicians. I've found I am most successful when I am an active participant and work to remove barriers to success by listening and acting on what I've heard. I get my best information and am able to make better decisions when I take the needs of all stakeholders into consideration. I know I've had a great day when I impact patient care in a way that seems so very simple to me but has a positive effect or outcome for our patients.

It's that simple: positive effects, positive outcomes.

I hope you will join me so we can unite in the fight against cancer.